Options expand, but farming still a tough row to hoe
JOHNS ISLAND — Jim Martin can grow anything, but the tough part of farming begins after the harvest.
By the numbers
Nationally, the number of farms grew 3.6 percent in recent years.
South Carolina has lost 1,326 farms, which represents 43,416 acres of farm land, since 2007.
Charleston County has lost 20 percent of its farms and 12 percent of its farm land in the past four years.
The average age of South Carolina farmers is 59.
Of the state’s 25,867 farmers, only 38 percent are younger than 55 years old and 11 percent are younger than 45 years old.
Source: Lowcountry Local First and USDA-NASS, 2007
Martin, 49, a horticulturist by trade, took his first steps into the world of farming a few years ago.
Like many new farmers, he has pulled together a bundle of activities to sustain himself financially. He grows and sells vegetables, herbs and other farm products. He does consulting work in garden design, and offers educational services in gardening and farming. He displays and markets his work through his website, compostinmyshoe.com. Martin also continues to work as the program director at the Charleston Parks Conservancy.
He now farms three small plots of land on Johns and James islands, and is looking for a larger piece of land that he can lease long-term.
“I’m selling myself in every way I can,” Martin said, “but my plan is for farming to eventually make up a larger percentage of my income.”
A demand for local produce and an aging farmer population have made conditions ripe for new farmers to break into the business. But people interested in getting back to the land shouldn’t romanticize it, or immediately quit their day jobs.
“Now, 80 percent of farmers across the country rely on 50 percent of non-farm income,” said Clemson University professor David Lamie, director of the school’s New and Beginning Farmer Program. The program introduces people to farming, especially its business aspects.
To get started in farming, Lamie said, people need land, labor, capital and management skills. Each one of those things presents a hurdle for people trying to break into the business, he said. Often, at least one of them proves to be insurmountable.
Steve Marchetti, 68, owner of Wrens Nest Farm on St. Helena Island, is the retired president of an engineering company, a job that took him around the world and gave him the opportunity to try many different types of food.
A businessman and a foodie, Marchetti grows unique products and has found niche markets through which to sell them. “I grow things people can’t get elsewhere,” he said. “Otherwise I would be just one more guy peddling cucumbers.”
One of his specialty crops is the tropea onion, which he called “the Italian Vidalia.” He also grows charentais melons, a French melon with a rich cantaloupe flavor.
The melons are delicate and tough to grow, he said. They can’t sit on the ground because they rot. They cost about $5 a piece, but they are worth it, he said.
“When they’re ripe, you can smell them in the field.”
Nikki Seibert, director of sustainable agriculture at Lowcountry Local First, said that new farmers generally fall into three different groups: people who come from farm families; younger, college-educated people who want to pursue farming as a career; and adults who choose farming as a second career, looking for work they are passionate about and enjoy doing everyday.
Seibert said her group provides support services to farmers, which she called “the ultimate entrepreneurs.”
Farmers are passionate about their work, she said, and they have to be. “You have to have the drive to work from sun up to sun down.”
Her group recently launched and “incubator farm” on Johns Island, which gives some new farmers use of a small plot of land for up to three years to get a better feel for farming. While being able to farm is a dream come true for some people, it’s not for everybody, Seibert said. “When you’re in a cubicle, you want to be outside. But when it’s 100 degrees in August, you want to be in a cubicle.”
Sidi Limehouse, who has been farming on Johns Island for more than 50 years, is working with Seibert’s group to train new farmers. A lot of the aspiring farmers are environmentally conscious, he said, but they don’t have any idea what it takes to run a farm.
“They want to be sustainable, but first they have to make the farmer sustainable,” Limehouse said.
Harleston Towles, 24, completed an apprenticeship program and has continued working at Limehouse’s Rosebank Farm. Members of his extended family have been farming on Johns, Wadmalaw and Edisto islands for generations, and Towles wants to continue the tradition.
And he understands that farming is a business. He recently had an idea to create a “mobile farmers’ market,” by getting a bus, and then selling produce from it in different areas. Limehouse is going to help him launch the plan.
Towles thinks that bringing produce closer to customers would boost sales. “Americans are creatures of convenience,” he said.
Some people think agriculture is a trade of the past, Towles said, but he doesn’t think that’s true. To him, it represents work in which he can use both his hands and his intellect.
On a given day, he said, he might learn important information about crop diseases, be introduced to new varieties of plants, and fix a pump. “No day is the same,” he said.
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.